Almost nothing about the 2018 midterm elections indicated U.S. politicians find much to agree on. But at the state level, at least one issue came up again and again in stump speeches and TV ads: early childhood education.
According to the National Governors Association (NGA), candidates in 32 of the 39 gubernatorial races claimed early education as a priority. That broad topic includes initiatives from preschool classes to affordable child care and more. But one common, bipartisan understanding undergirds all of it: A child’s educational development does not begin in kindergarten.
“We’re seeing more recognition around the science of learning and development and what leads to lifelong learning outcomes,” said Aaliyah A. Samuel, director of the education division for the NGA.
According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, only about 1 in 5 parents stays home with their children. While research shows one-on-one interaction with children offers the best environment for their development, 80 percent of parents send their children to some form of child care. And children whose parents can’t afford the best care often end up falling behind before they ever get to school. That achievement gap has prompted policymakers to push for more government involvement.
While politicians recognize the value of early education, especially for disadvantaged children, they don’t agree on how to support or improve it. Democrats, who have focused on this issue for longer, tend to gravitate toward initiatives like universal pre-K or Head Start, according to Katharine Stevens, an early childhood policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. Republicans, she said, are focused more on defining and addressing the scientifically proven needs of children at the root-cause level.
In 2015, federal lawmakers established a grant program to help states do just that. The Preschool Development Grants Birth Through Five will dole out $1 billion over four years to increase participation in high-quality early learning programs. Stevens called the grant program a breakthrough because it doesn’t aim to establish a new, federally funded initiative. Instead, it seeks to bolster existing networks of child care options, emphasizing parental choice.
The first step is for each state to evaluate its resources and identify gaps. The second step focuses on filling those gaps. Stevens hopes many of the state proposals will highlight care from birth to 3 years old, the time researchers increasingly say matters most.
“If you’re talking about focusing on the foundations of development, you don’t focus on 4-year-olds because that’s not actually the foundation of development,” she said. “The foundation of development starts prenatally and then certainly in the first three years of life. … So if your focus is improving outcomes, especially for disadvantaged children, and you’re following the science, you’re going to be focused on pregnant mothers and children from birth to 3.”
Samuel with the NGA believes state-level solutions will continue to take precedence over a more universal, federal approach. While each state’s programs will differ in implementation, she expects to see an increase in funding for and access to high-quality early childhood programs.
“In the same way you don’t question funding a child for second grade, you won’t see people questioning funding for early childhood,” she said.